Elephants at the UN

Why the US can’t – legally – bomb the Islamic State in Syria.

A life-sized, anatomically correct bronze elephant stands partially hidden on the North Lawn of the United Nations compound in New York. It’s one of many treasures scattered around the UN campus, gifts from member states or, in this case, the Bulgarian artist Mihail Simeonov. This sculpture caused quite a scandal when it was unveiled back in 1998 for being just a bit too life-like in the case of its genitalia. As the story goes, the three-and-a-half tonne sculpture was cast from male who was sedated and, in the words of one observer at the time, “having a sweet dream”. As a result, the UN decided to strategically plant some bushes around its legs to hide the offensive part of his anatomy.

I was reminded of the statue this week, as the US threatened to extend its bombing campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State group in Iraq to include positions in Syria. If there’s one thing on which world powers on the UN Security Council can agree, it is the fact that the Islamic State poses a serious threat to international peace and security. The Council recently passed a resolution saying as much and expanding sanctions to include anyone who helps recruit for the group.

Yet no one at the UN wanted to talk about President Barack Obama’s threats.

“It’s the elephant in the room,” veteran UN reporter and Huffington Post contributor Evelyn Leopold winked at me after a press briefing on Syria by the current Council President, the United Kingdom’s Mark Lyall Grant.

The Security Council had just received its monthly briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Despite more access by aid workers in some locations, the UN says 240,000 civilians remain trapped in areas besieged by conflict. It also says Islamic State and the government are blocking aid deliveries and, as a result of intensified fighting between these groups, more people died in Syria in the month of July than since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. It’s gotten so bad that literally half the population of Syria has had to leave home, fleeing either to another part of the country or, in the case of three million refugees, across the border.

Legality of military action

Given the UN’s concerns, I asked Lyall Grant if the council had discussed the possibility of US air strikes in Syria, and whether or not such strikes would be legal under international law.

Lyall Grant, a key American ally on the council, never really answered the question. “There hasn’t been any discussions of that in the Security Council.” 

“But would it be legal?” I pressed.

“Well, the British Government is not currently planning any military actions.”

He ignored the question and moved on to another. Similarly, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, through his spokesperson, refused to speculate on the legality of something that hadn’t yet happened.

Syria has said it would welcome international assistance in fighting the Islamic State, as long as any strikes were coordinated with the government. President Bashar al Assad has always blamed his country’s three-year civil war on “terrorists” after all. The West, however, blame Assad’s repressive crackdown on Syrian civilians for giving rise to groups like the Islamic State. Needless to say, they are reluctant to help, much less collaborate with the Syrian government, on anything.

President Obama retorted that he did not have to coordinate with Syria when American interests were at stake. But technically, under international law he does. 

The United States has been a leading critic of Russia for allegedly sending arms and soldiers into Ukraine against that government’s will, charges the Russian government continues to deny despite mounting evidence. It would be hypocritical if the US were to take unilateral action against Syria without the approval of Assad or the Security Council.

So perhaps it’s not surprising no one wanted to talk about it at the UN – or that Obama has since backed down from his tough talk. Never mind that Syria is now witnessing beheadings and other atrocities at the hands of the Islamic State, the same stuff which led the Americans and others to help the Iraqi government and it’s citizens.

It’s the elephant in the room, the dirty underbelly of international diplomacy which the UN chooses to keep hidden.